Battling evictions

Government, nonprofits working to prevent wave of evictions in Cleveland – Is it enough?

By Conor Morris

Northeast Ohio Journalism Collaborative

Cleveland’s housing court opened last week after a three-month moratorium on evictions. Does this mean a tidal wave of evictions are ahead?

Upcoming rental assistance programs from Cleveland and Cuyahoga County – with about $17 million total in aid – will help, but, will it be enough to keep people in their homes during a pandemic that has sent Ohio’s unemployment rate skyrocketing? 

Cleveland Municipal Court’s Housing Court had at least 400 eviction cases rescheduled for hearings starting on June 15, with most being hold-overs since the early days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in March when courts were closed. Cleveland Municipal Clerk of Courts spokesperson Obed Shelton said this week that at least 352 additional new eviction cases were filed during the first week the court reopened.

That’s higher than normal, but not as high as some experts were predicting. Cleveland Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott told an Ideastream reporter that some landlords might be choosing to wait for housing assistance to be available from the city and county.

Abigail Staudt, managing attorney with the housing group for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said that she expects to see an increase in evictions filed per-day, far more than the 35 eviction cases filed on average per-day during pre-pandemic times.

Cuyahoga County in April had a whopping unemployment rate of 23.5 percent (the sixth highest of any county in Ohio) coupled with Ohio’s massively overloaded unemployment system that saw people waiting weeks for unemployment checks.  The double whammy has likely meant many people have missed at least one rental payment. Meanwhile, federal aid to unemployed workers in the form of $600 weekly checks will be ending in July.

“We know some landlords that are proactively working with their tenants but there are others who (were) probably waiting for the courts to open,” Staudt said.

For the most part, those cases will be heard remotely, through Zoom, to prevent potential spread of the coronavirus, although some in-person cases will resume for those who don’t have access to that technology, Staudt said. 

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson both announced  earlier this month that starting in early July, they will launch new rental-assistance programs to help people catch up on rental payments they’ve missed during the pandemic.

The county will be rolling out its $6.8 million rental-assistance program starting on July 1, with $5 million coming from the federal CARES Act. Budish and Paul Herdeg, the county’s deputy chief economic development officer, explained that the program issues a check to landlords who rent to low-income tenants.  The check will cover up to three months worth of back rent (which in Cuyahoga County would be an average of $2,400 or so, Herdeg said).

The county will also need confirmation from the landlord or property owner that the tenant is behind in rent, and proof of a job loss, small business closure or some other complication related to the pandemic, Herdeg explained.

Cleveland is also preparing to roll-out its own plans for a similar $11.3 million rental-assistance program beginning the week of July 15, although applications will begin to be accepted through a website starting on July 1 or by calling CHN Housing Partners at (216) 574-7100. That effort was announced by Jackson as part of the city’s $19.3 million Restart CLE plan, funded partly by the CARES Act.  

Both the city and county programs also require families receiving the assistance to be within a certain income guideline, starting at 120 percent or less of the area median income for one portion of the county’s funds ($90,000 for a family of four). Both programs have funding available for families living at 80 percent or less of the area median income ($60,000 for a family of four), as well.

The city in its statement said it’s expecting an estimated 5,000 households to get three months of rental assistance, while the city is expecting 1,500 households to receive extended, long-term assistance (up to 9 months).

Budish said the county recognizes that this assistance alone will not be enough to help the county’s low-income and other residents struggling during the pandemic.

He could be right. In cities across the country, rental-assistance programs announced during the pandemic have run dry within days or even hours. Houston’s $15 million fund ran dry two hours after the application portal opened back in May. In places like Philadelphia, city governments are asking for private donations to bolster their rental-assistance programs after they ran out of funds.

The county and city rental assistance programs will be administered through a joint effort led by Cleveland nonprofit CHN Housing Partners, working with Cleveland nonprofit EDEN Inc. Both organizations had their own pre-pandemic rental-assistance programs.

Although the new pandemic rental assistance programs haven’t been implemented yet, Laura Boustani, strategic communication manager with CHN, said that people in need of  assistance should call 211, the United Way of Greater Cleveland’s helpline, to get into the queue to receive services when the programs begin.  

Graham Bowman, attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, said local rental-assistance programs like those in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County  “need backup from either the state or federal sources,” Bowman explained.  Ohio doesn’t have a pandemic-related rental- assistance program and it’s expecting a $2.4 billion budget shortfall alone in the coming fiscal year starting on July 1 as the coronavirus shreds sales and income tax collection.

Bowman’s organization, and 180-plus other statewide advocacy and other organizations (including landlord groups), have joined the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio to sign onto a letter calling on Ohio Governor Mike DeWine to use $100 million in federal CARES Act funds to create a statewide rental-assistance programs.

Yet even states with housing assistance programs are bracing for the tidal wave. Phyllis Chamberlain, executive director of the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, said that Pennsylvania’s legislature and governor have made more than $175 million available in housing-related coronavirus relief funds, with $150 million to prevent evictions and  $25 million to reduce mortgage assistance for low-income residents.  

“But just given the number of people who were unemployed and then also given the number of people unemployed who were already making fairly low wages, we don’t believe that this will completely address the problem,” Chamberlain said.

Meanwhile, long-term federal solutions have mostly stalled. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown along with several other lawmakers introduced a new piece of legislation in early May to create a $100 billion emergency rental assistance program, and that bill was included in the $3 trillion HEROES stimulus bill passed by Congress. The Senate has balked with  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissing it as “another big laundry list of pet priorities” for Democrats.

Legal Aid’s Staudt said her agency is significantly increasing its staffing. That initiative was actually under way even before the pandemic, in preparation for Cleveland’s new “Right to Counsel” law, set to go into effect July 1. That law guarantees tenants free legal representation, as long as they are at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($17,240 for a two-person family) and have at least one child.

Landlord-tenant mediation is another service that could stem the tide of evictions, Staudt said. Danielle Cosgrove, director of the Cleveland Mediation Center, explained that her agency recently received funding through the RestartCLE program to hire a new mediator so it can  ramp up mediation services between landlords and tenants. The hope is to provide mediation for more than 500 clients between now and next May. 

Staudt said she hopes the right-to-counsel measure and mediation can both be short-term solutions toward keeping people in their homes. 

Conor Morris is a corps member with Report for America. You can find him on Twitter at @condormorris. This story is sponsored by the Northeast Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 16 Greater Cleveland news outlets including (the West Park Times). 

Looking for assistance paying utility bills or rent? Call EDEN Inc. at 216 961 9600 , or CHN Housing Partners at 216 574 7100. 

Need help mediating a conflict? Call the Cleveland Mediation Center at 216 621 1919.

Need legal assistance? Call the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, 216-687-1900.

Note: Cleveland’s Housing Court reopened June 15.

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